Life Musings

Moving beyond feminism

For those of you who I haven’t shared this with yet, I’m staying in Chicago to spend the next two months writing a book about many of the pivotal experiences that have changed me in recent (and less recent) years. A lot of the stories I’ve already written about and shared with you in this space, so thank you for bearing witness to my journey.

It’s been challenging to relive the memories and re-read the journal entries because a lot of the stories are associated with pain and despair. I’ve felt a little bit like I’ve traveled back in time to revisit the rabbit hole, remembering the darkness so I can write about the light.

Today, I’m writing specifically about events and emotions associated with traveling alone as a woman, and the experience of being a woman in general. In the past, I’ve avoided focusing too much on the ‘solo female’ aspect of my travels, because I think it can deter from the larger human narrative of following your authentic path regardless of gender, class, race, religion, etc. I am always more interested in what connects us rather than what separates us. We all carry within us the human spirit, irregardless of our outer form.

However, I think it can be a disservice to ignore the limitations and double standards that continue to affect both genders. (I want to create space here for acknowledging the fluidity of sexuality and gender identity. By no means do I want to exclude those who are gender neutral or trans-gender, or those who fall on any point within the spectrum. I can only speak truthfully to what I have personally experienced, so please forgive any unintentional assumptions or offense).

In reviewing my experiences, it’s easy to get stuck in the rabbit hole of negative emotion and anger. It’s easy to soak in all of the indignant feelings and find blame within myself or others. When I think of the unforgettable times I’ve been harassed, or threatened, or placated, or (fill in the blank), because of my gender, I can easily reverberate between victim shaming (I shouldn’t have put myself in that position, been wearing that, walking there, etc.) and man hating. 

There has to be a third option. I am a strong feminist, but I think mainstream feminism often falls short. We cannot talk about what it means to be a woman, or how we can cherish and protect our femininity, without discussing what it means to be a man and asking how we can preserve and honor masculinity. We carry characteristics of both inside of us. We can’t untangle them, offering love and respect to one aspect of ourselves while blaming, hating, and shaming the other. There is no other.

I have been treated poorly by men. I have run up against the limits society has placed on women and been knocked down on the floor by an invisible, yet pervasive boundary line. I have felt well meaning compliments curdle inside my chest, feeling repulsed by the unspoken implications.

I’ve also heard the men in my life offer subtle hints of feeling trapped in their own confining, restrictive roles. I’ve heard my father talk about how he was teased and ridiculed when he told his father he didn’t want to go hunting any more. I’ve heard straight men call themselves “gay” or “emo” after expressing emotion. I’ve heard the women in my life dismiss behaviors they saw as displeasing with a wave of a hand, “That’s just how men are…” I’ve witnessed stereotypes that are staggering and unquestioned.

What is the way through to each other? How can we find our way back to celebrating vulnerability, creativity, strength, and power in all of us? How can we re-define courage and bravery for all genders? How can we create space to be who we really are, in spite of what we’re told to be?

Yesterday I had a conversation with my sister about a friend of hers. He has been trying to “toughen her up,” often poking fun at her sensitivity and telling her to grow thicker skin. My suspicion (while not excusing this behavior), is that someone told him the same thing. At some point, his masculinity was probably called into question because he displayed sensitive qualities.

When did we decide the ability to be open, perceptive, and attune to the environment was a negative thing? Especially for men? The more sensitive you are, the more alive you are, and that is beautiful.

It’s common to blast the tendencies of others that we see inside of us and fear the most. I am not guiltless here. This man’s comment to Brené Brown, a researcher on the topics of shame and vulnerability, illustrates this point clearly, “They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads. Because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.”

Our expectations of each other will not change over night. The roles we play are so ingrained into what we’ve been taught, they’re hard to recognize as roles. There’s a lot of healing and integration that needs to take place within ourselves before we can reach for wholeness outside of us. That looks different for each of us.

Wherever we are, whoever we are, I think the first step might be acceptance. Accept the parts of you that don’t fit inside a box or comply with a stereotype. Don’t pretend it fits if it doesn’t. Honor the complexity and fluidity within the cells of your body and heart and soul. Give yourself permission to be different and unique. Ask questions. If something doesn’t feel right, give yourself space to ask, “Why?” and sit with it for awhile. 

As a society, as human beings, I think we can be gentler. I think we can allow for ambiguity. I think we can stop measuring our worth in terms of who we’re dating, or how many people we’ve had sex with. I think we can stop asking men to define themselves by the success of their career, or how many women they’ve ‘conquered.’ I think we can start celebrating women who are single and childless.

We can start valuing each other based on the quality of our character, the authenticity of our love, the genuineness of our words.

Visit the rabbit hole, see it for what it is, and then be kind. Offer forgiveness to yourself and others. Show others how to be vulnerable by being vulnerable. Open up the conversation, make room for understanding instead of blaming. Let’s cherish each others strengths and weaknesses. Let’s become both the instrument and the composer.

Let’s create something beautiful together.

Photo taken at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kanas City Missouri 

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